Speaking of…love?

21 Mar

That same year [1773], his father-in-law John Wayles died. He left to his daughter (which in law meant that he left to his son-in-law) an estate that doubled Jefferson’s holding. He also bequeathed the slaves with whom to work the land, among them an illegitimate child of his–and thus Martha Jefferson’s half sister–named Sally Hemings.

–Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, p. 15.

Creepy and sordid on so many levels. Still, it seems worth noting that, if memory serves (I’m only 20 pages into the Hitchens book and haven’t read much on the American Revolution in a few years), Martha Jefferson died before Thomas Jefferson and Hemings were, uh, acquainted. And while sexual relationships initiated under circumstances of radically unequal power and freedom call for moral scrutiny (to say the least), we’ll probably never know the real tenor of theirs, to what degree, if any, those 38 years knew loving reciprocity. Of course, whatever the pair were like together behind closed doors, it should in no way mitigate the stain left on our historical image of Jefferson by his disgraceful perpetuation of chattel slavery.


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